Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs First Special Report


The Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee has agreed to the following Special Report:—


Main Direction and Aims etc

1. The Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions has a huge range of responsibilities. The scrutiny of the Department has accordingly involved a wide range of inquiries and imposed a large work load on the Committee. In each of the last two sessions we have published 20 reports or more.

2. The Committee has undertaken this work through two sub-committees (Transport and Environment) which meet weekly and through the Main Committee which meets almost as often, and which examines subjects which concern both environment and transport. It has taken a particular interest in planning matters.

3. The main focus of the Committee's work has been criticising and influencing Government policy. The Transport Sub-committee has undertaken twenty-three inquiries which have led, or are likely to lead, to Reports during this Parliament. Seven of those inquiries have related to aviation (of which four dealt with National Air Traffic Services Limited), six to the railways, four to forms of local public transport (including two devoted to London Underground), two to maritime transport, two to road transport, and one each devoted to millennium compliance.

4. The Environment Sub-committee has so far undertaken twenty inquiries which have led, or are likely to lead, to Reports during this Parliament. In keeping with the very broad range of the Sub-committee's remit, these inquiries have covered subjects as diverse as waste management, local government finance, the protection of field boundaries and the potential risk of fire spread in buildings via external cladding systems.

5. The Main Committee has been particularly concerned with how policy might reverse the unsustainable developments of the 20th century which saw the flight of middle income groups from the city to rural areas, and an ever increasing car dependency. To this end in the last year it produced reports on housing, supermarkets and the provisions of both the proposed Urban and Rural White Papers.

6. As well as examining the Government's proposals, the Committee has also brought to public attention subjects which have been ignored for far too long. An example of the former is the report on the National Air Traffic Service, of the latter the report on Town and County Parks. Following this report, parks were given a prominent role in the Urban White Paper.

7. In addition both sub-committees have undertaken detailed work on the Department's public bodies. The Environment Sub-committee looked at English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the Regional Development Agencies in earlier sessions and the Audit Commission, the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and the Planning Inspectorate in session 1999-2000. Some of these studies have generated a considerable amount of interest. The Transport Sub-committee has looked at the work of the Commission for Integrated Transport in this session. In previous years it examined the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and after Christmas is to examine the work of the Department's transport related non Departmental public bodies. Evidence has also been taken from public bodies as part of other inquiries; for example the Main Committee held an evidence session with the Housing Corporation during its inquiry on the Proposed Urban White Paper.

8. The Committee has been keen to follow up earlier inquiries. For instance, the Transport Sub-committee has looked at the National Air Traffic Services and the railways in each Session of this Parliament. The Main Committee has pressed the Department on housing on greenfield sites throughout the Parliament, making initial proposals, then suggesting ways in which the Government proposals should be strengthened and later checking on implementation. The Environment Sub-committee undertook an inquiry into waste, was dissatisfied with progress in implementing policy and is currently undertaking another inquiry into Delivering Sustainable Waste Management.


9. We have held a few long inquiries, but in the majority of inquiries have restricted ourselves to no more than five oral evidence sessions per inquiry, with many comprising fewer evidence sessions. We have also undertaken a number of one-off evidence sessions to cross-examine Ministers on recent policy announcements and to look at the department's public bodies. A good example of the former is the Transport Sub-committee's session with Lord Macdonald after the Ten Year Transport Plan was announced; of the latter, the Environment Sub-committee's sessions with the Director-General of Ofwat and with the Countryside Agency.

Government Replies to Reports

10. The Department has developed an unfortunate habit of consistently delivering its replies after the expected two month deadline. In each case a 'good' reason is given. Often it amounts to saying that the Government plans to make an important announcement on the subject at a later date and does not wish to make a earlier response to the Committee. For instance, the reply to the report on the draft Planning Policy Guidance Note 3, on Housing, was considerably delayed because the Department was unwilling to publish it until the final guidance note was issued. The Government's response to the Sub-committee's Report on the Road Haulage Industry was due on 26 September 2000. On 5 October the Department contacted the Sub-committee to say that "given the sensitivities following the fuel protests" it intended to delay its response until after the Chancellor's pre-Budget Report. By 27 November (ie. four months after the Report had been published) the Government wrote to request a further delay until the end of December or early in the New Year. In contrast, when the Government has wanted to, it has been able to produce replies very quickly. The reply to the very critical report on the Department's Annual Report in the summer of 1999, which received a great deal of publicity, was published within two weeks.

11. When they have arrived, the quality of the Government's replies have been very variable. Some have been extremely positive, welcoming much of what the Sub-committee has recommended. In contrast, on a handful of occasions in response to very critical reports (on National Air Traffic Services, on the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and on the Department's Annual Report, for example) the Government has sought to be terse and unhelpful. Several have welcomed the Committee's report but have rejected key recommendations. While some have engaged in a debate with the Committee, others have simply re-stated the Government's view.

12. It is well known that the influence of the Committee is not just shown in the Government's responses. Often the appearance of a Minister or senior civil servant before the Committee can lead to a change of, or clarification of, Government policy. We have also found that Government has reacted more positively to our reports some time after the Response. For instance, the Urban White Paper is more sympathetic than the original response to the report on Town and Country Parks. The Transport Sub-committee has repeatedly pressed for an Integrated Transport Safety organisation, and the Queen's Speech suggested that this is now being seriously considered.

13. The attention Ministers give to the Committee's reports is affected by the press coverage they are given. A number have consistently provided a thorough and accurate, if often critical, account of our reports. We wish to acknowledge in particular the work of some of the specialist correspondents of the broadsheets. We have, however, been disappointed that the BBC, despite its public service remit, has not always provided a similar level of comprehensive coverage.

Relations with the Department

14. The Committee has, for the most part, found officials in the DETR very helpful. We would like to extend our particular thanks to the parliamentary clerks, Pauline Gaunt and Paul Davies, for their hard work, efficiency and helpfulness whatever the demands we have placed on them.

15. Ministers from the Department have invariably agreed to give oral evidence to the Committee. Some have made many appearances - the record of the most appearances is held by Michael Meacher who has come before us on 15 occasions.

16. The Committee has had little difficulty in securing the attendance of Junior Ministers from other Departments. We have had one problem: we invited the Rt hon Nick Brown MP to appear before the Committee as one of the co-authors of the Rural White Paper, but he declined and suggested Elliot Morley MP take his place. We do not consider this acceptable.


17. Following Second Reading of the Railways Bill on 19 July 1999, the Committee (and subsequently the Transport Sub-committee) was invited by the House to examine the legislation and to report by 12 November. The need to obtain written evidence and to organise sessions of oral evidence meant that this was a very tight timetable. It might have been tighter still: the date of 12 November was agreed only after intensive negotiations through the Usual Channels. Nevertheless, the Sub-committee was able to consider 39 written memoranda and to take evidence over two days from fourteen different organisations. We then produced a report very quickly, and in fact reported to the House on 4 November 2000. Many of our recommendations were adopted in the Transport Bill in the new Session of Parliament.

18. Although we were able to undertake the process thoroughly and effectively, the scrutiny of the Railways Bill imposed unreasonable pressures on Members and particularly on the Sub-committee's staff. Pre-legislative scrutiny should, in our view, be supported by additional staff, and the timetables set for such scrutiny should be realistic.

19. The Environment Sub-committee plans to examine the draft Water Bill in the New Year.

Resource Accounting and Budgeting Work, Annual Reports etc.

20. The Committee has continued its practice of regularly scrutinising the Department's Annual Report. In the Main Committee evidence was taken from the Permanent Secretary and the Principal Finance Officer, and evidence was also taken in both Sub-committees. These occasions have proved particularly useful for examining the targets the Department has set itself - whether they have changed or whether they have been quietly discarded.

21. In these sessions the Committee has also undertaken work on RAB. It has been concerned that as a result of changes consequent upon RAB time series data and certain types of information would be unavailable. Accordingly it sought that the Department supply quarterly reports detailing agreed virements between sections and providing budgetary information for each of the significant NDPBs. The Department agreed.

22. The DETR wished as part of the RAB process to switch from 11 votes to two Requests for Resources. The Committee was strongly opposed, and eventually a compromise was agreed whereby the Department proposed four Requests for Resources covering transport; housing and environment; local government; and central administration.

Other activities

23. The Committee has not conducted confirmation hearings. However, the Transport Sub-committee did take evidence from Sir Alastair Morton, Chairman of the shadow Strategic Rail Authority two months after his appointment, from Mr Tom Winsor, the Rail Regulator, a fortnight before he took up his new post, and from the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport shortly after their appointment. Sir John Harman appeared before the Environment Sub-committee in connection with its inquiry into the work of the Environment Agency shortly after his appointment as Chairman of that Agency.

24. Neither has the Committee examined any Treaties, but it has produced a general report on Multilateral Environmental Agreements and published a major report on the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. The Report on Multilateral Environmental Agreements resulted in a Government commitment to "arrange for Parliamentary Questions to be tabled prior to all MEA negotiations where decisions are likely to be taken to enable the Government to set out its objectives for the negotiation".[9]

25. The Committee has considered in detail some important Planning Policy Guidance (PPG). We consider this work to be of great importance since Guidance Notes have a major impact on the lives of our constituents but are not subject to any Parliamentary scrutiny. The Committee has undertaken inquiries into drafts of PPG 3 and 25, and has re-examined PPG 6 when there were proposals to weaken it. In other inquiries it has taken note of proposed revisions to PPG 13 and PPG 11.

26. As will be apparent from the account above of our work this Parliament, the Committee's Reports do not only concern the Government, but are often of equal interest to other bodies. Responses by a public body which has been the subject of a Committee Report - for example, the Environment Agency[10] - are often equally as valuable as those by the Government itself. In two cases involving inquiries by the Environment Sub-committee, we have been keen to follow up our Reports with meetings with other parties involved. A formal evidence session was held with the Local Government Association, the New Opportunities Fund and English Heritage four months after publication of the Report on Town & Country Parks. Following publication of the Committee's Report on Travelling Fairs, very fruitful informal meetings were held with representatives of both the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain and of the Local Government Association regarding the actions they were proposing to take consequent on the Committee's findings.

27. The Environment Sub-committee has begun to publish all the memoranda it receives at the beginning of an inquiry and place the document on the Internet. The Sub-committee considers this a very useful innovation since it enables witnesses and members of the public to see and comment on the evidence received. The publication of the memoranda themselves has been of some interest to the press and enables a better informal discussion of the subject.

Other matters

28. The ETRA Select Committee recognised the political and policy arguments for merging the old Departments of the Environment and Transport into a new department. If this merger were to be reviewed after the next election, possibly together with other departmental responsibilities, it must be recognised that any departmental changes would have significant effects on the select committee regime and staffing, which must be properly taken into account. Such changes, however, should not lead to any delays in setting up select committees.

29. We believe that the ETRA Select Committee has worked effectively, but this has been because of the co-operation and good sense of its members rather than because of its standing orders. If is to be effective, the select committee must be able to cover the huge range of the Department's responsibilities and the work of its many associated public bodies. Had the Committee chosen to work purely in the two sub-committees allowed by the standing orders- environment and transport - much of the Department would not have been scrutinised and the particular issue of integrating transport and planning might not have been pursued. However in choosing to work in the Main Committee and two sub-committees, we committed members to a very large work load, and put considerable pressures on committee resources. Given the good attendance of members it was a considerable challenge to have 17 members wishing to question witnesses on occasions. We recommend that a future ETRAC should not have more than 17 Members, but should be allowed to appoint 3 sub-committees to cover the full range of the work.

30. The relationship between our role in departmental scrutiny and the work of Environmental Audit Committees was not clarified when that Committee was established. The Environmental Audit Committee seems to have placed very considerable demands on DETR Ministers rather than the whole of the Government. We regret that its terms of reference have encouraged it do so rather than to spend more time looking at the work of other Departments.

31. Select Committees depend on the quality of evidence submitted to them. We were extremely grateful to all those who sent us evidence. However, a close scrutiny of our evidence volumes will show that on some topics it is easy to get very large amounts of excellent evidence, while on other topics it is much harder. We must recognise that there are some areas of the Department's work, which do not affect major commercial issues, nor are they subject to campaigns by NGOs.

9  See pp. 30-31 of the Government's reply to our request for an update on 'live' recommendations. Back

10  HC (1999-2000) 870  Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 18 January 2001